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That Sea Is History: Water Metaphors in Modern European Historiography

by guest contributor Lucian Staiano-Daniels

By Lucian Staiano-Daniels

I spent over twenty-four months in the Saxon State Archives in Dresden during my doctorate, researching soldiers’ lives in central Europe during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). I sifted less-read sources, like transcripts of military trials, for information about these men’s social interactions with one another. The first weeks were not very fruitful. One of the books I was reading then referenced a volume of legal documents from a single regiment in its footnotes. This volume had been compiled in 1625, and was the oldest unified military legal collection I had seen so far. The author did not know whether more books like it existed. When I typed the regiment’s name into the records, not one volume came up, but three: it was part of a manuscript series, broken up possibly since its acquisition. The other two books had been misfiled. These three rare and unusual manuscripts detailed every legal ruling this regiment’s authorities took during its lifespan.  Finding these missing books was a mystical experience, and I fell into the archives like a sea.

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Comparing history or time to water is common in the Western canon, expressing uncertainty about historical truth and human beliefs, but also unexpected enlightenment. As Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote (AD 161-180), “There is a kind of river in events and time is a violent stream; as soon as each thing is seen, it has been carried away and something else is being carried past and that will be carried away” (4:43, 27). Time changes objects, it carries off, it wears away. Time is a river because of its speed and its power; it relativizes the value humans place on perishable things: “Flows and changes constantly renew the universe,” he said, “as the unceasing movement of time makes boundless eternity for ever young. In this river, where it is impossible to stand, which of these things that are rushing past him could anyone place value on?” (6:15, 42).

Things that have passed no longer exist. They are not available to us. Marcus Aurelius returned to this metaphor: “hardly anything stands still, even what is near to us; and there is the yawning infinity of the past and the future into which everything vanishes” (Meditations, 5:23, 36). The river makes all things impermanent, and this is their youth, because they are renewed.

For the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who predated Marcus Zurelius by more than five hundred years, change itself was the river. Time was not a container for events which were fundamentally separate from it: “Into the same rivers we step and do not step; we both are and are not. ” German philosopher GWF Hegel invoked a similar metaphor in the early nineteenth century to describe his view of time: “Time is not, as it were, a receptacle in which everything is placed as in a flowing stream, which sweeps it away and engulfs it. Time is only this abstraction of destruction. It is because things are finite that they are in time; it is not because they are in time that they perish.” (35-36)

In Western historical writing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which emerged in the midst of profound sociopolitical changes, this metaphor was often intended to express a feeling of destabilization: if all things perish and cannot be prized, the same goes for veridical truth. The influential Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt began The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by stating: “In the wide ocean upon which we venture, the possible ways and directions are many; and the same studies which have served for this work might easily, in other hands, not only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead also to essentially different conclusions.” (19) For Burckhardt, history was the record of what one age finds interesting in another; since it was the art of evaluating, it could not make apodictically true statements. For each new voyage the sea is trackless.

The nineteenth century presented a dynamic universe as opposed to the contained, ordered κόσμος in which both Marcus Aurelius and Heraclitus believed. The mutability of contemporary life haunted Burkhardt, and the violent upheavals of the 1860s and 1870s convinced him there were parallels between past events and his own time. “We want to know on which swell of this great storm we are driven” (§131, 302), he said. But “we should like to know this wave upon which we float in the sea, however we are this wave itself” (§114 (I), 269). Historians could not contemplate the sea without realizing they were inextricably enmeshed in it.

The mid-twentieth-century philosopher Karl Löwith argued in 1959 that the philosophy of linear history that had emerged in the West was fundamentally theological and had reached a crisis point by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The “last religion” to which Burckhardt could cling was the idea of historical continuity (24-25), but for the German liberal Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch, historical study showed the relativity of all values: all ideas were historically and culturally conditioned and subject to change, including Christian dogma. Löwith claimed that without the ἔσχατον the flux of time would devour its own creations (18), but Troeltsch feared the flux was all there was. As he wrote in 1913:

Everywhere the dams that attempted to halt change through eternal, changeless truths are breaking. Eleatic, Platonic, Kantian ideas of the eternal a priori sought in vain to limit the flood and have themselves been drawn into it, becoming mere aspirations and approximations to the Absolute. All rationally necessary ideas of state and society have been swept into the vortex; there is no unchangeable code of conscience any more…The mood today is certainly no longer a victorious confidence in progress: it has become rather horror in the face of the alienating and relativizing boundlessness of the fragile conditions of existence.

Ernst Troeltsch, “Die Dogmatik der Religionsgeschichtlichen Schule,” 104-105

The fluidity of constant becoming was unnerving. If historical objects were context-dependent, this river in flood could sweep away normative systems. Value that was absolute belonged not to history, but to faith.

Historical research is a bitter sea. It requires you to give your all and displace yourself, and it may not reward you. Burkhardt compared the act of knowingly doing history to going to sea in a boat he did not trust: “As soon as we become aware of our position, we find ourselves on a more or less rickety ship, driven on one of a million great waves” (§114 (IV), 278-279).

But the sea did not only carry away. While the surface was violent, the deeper layers moved slowly. This was the metaphor of the great twentieth-century historian Fernand Braudel. A historian of a real and existent sea, the Mediterranean, Braudel also conceived of history as a sea with several layers. In The Mediterranean World, he asserted that the deepest layer, “whose passage is almost imperceptible,” was “that of man in his relationship to his environment, a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles.” The second, “on a different layer from the first,” had “slow but perceptible rhythms”; this was “social history, the history of groups and groupings.” Part of The Mediterranean World investigated how “these swelling currents” affected Mediterranean life in general. The third layer, finally, was at the surface of the sea: “history not on the level of man, but of individual men…the history of events: surface disturbances, crests of foam that the waves of history carry on their strong backs.” At the time of Philip II as in Braudel’s time, this world was characterized by “brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations”; at the time of Philip II as Braudel’s it was blind, “unconscious of the deeper realities of history, of the running waters on which our frail barks are tossed like cockleshells.”

According to Braudel, there was a surface and a depth to the sea of history. The violent change that abashed Burckhardt and Troeltsch was at the surface; deeper levels were slower. History was no longer what historians floated on top of, it was what they looked down or up through.

The sea hid something beneath, and preserved it; putting something under itself, the sea sublated it. As poet Derek Walcott observed, 

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?

Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,

in that grey vault. The sea. The sea

has locked them up. The sea is History.

Derek Walcott, “The Sea is History,” 1979

The bottom of the sea contained experiences without commemoration from hegemonic society, which had been forcibly denied to the descendants of the enslaved. The commemoration was the voice of the poet: what is at the bottom of the sea must be actively retrieved.

This change in the image of the sea was a literal change. The Mediterranean World was published in 1949 and Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom, in which “The Sea is History” appeared, in 1979: by the mid-twentieth century, humans could dive down into the sea and look around for hours. But the idea that history showed the relativity of all supposedly objective verities was also no longer as challenging as it had been in the nineteenth century. Now historians question the idea of truth in historical evidence itself. Within this context, research based on the empirical analysis of large quantities of statistical data drawn from unpublished sources—“finding something at the bottom of the sea”—is not simply given as the way things are done; it requires a deliberate commitment to this approach as opposed to any other. Like Heraclitus’s river, the historian steps into it, breaking the surface. Inextricably part of these movements, he or she can also observe them. Change within time may throw our values into question, eliciting strong emotions, but at the level of nearly timeless statistics, both emotions and values are irrelevant. Although historical deconstruction is not an approach I share, you could argue that practicing history with statistics is one way to emotionally control the threat posed by the sea’s devouring power. Change is destabilizing, but what happened can also be analyzed dispassionately. The bottom of the sea is cold.

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Discussing mystical experience implicitly raises the possibility that “only a god can save” history as practice, that the only remaining ground of historical truth must be something transcendent: the deluge on one hand and a god on the other. Waters have often been associated with monsters rather than gods, impedimentia rather than insight. The sea is the uncanny, that which we cannot reckon. The sea signifies otherness from the other. The sea on which we embark is the sea of what we cannot control; the world bobs on it like a scrap of wood. This causes earthquakes, said Thales (30-31). But divine power also burns inside that water. In Shaivite mythology the force that will consume the earth at doomsday, or Shiva himself, is a mare on fire within the sea. In Christian mythology, Christ’s immersion in the Jordan initiated his mission: nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest: neither any thing hid, that shall not be knowen, and come abroad. We need not ground historical ontology on the transcendent in order to think.

My intent is more modest; my memory is of a modest act. I received the manuscripts I found as insight, and this experience has shaped my approach to archival methodology ever since. I gather and strain data, I piece together scraps of information, and I am open to stumbling over something for which I did not look. And when I go to the archives I begin work floating on the surface of the sea; sheet-crumpled lead. I tip into the water. Blue darker than black; breathe out and sink. Liquid saturates my flesh, and I do not breathe in again. On the sea floor it is almost impossible to move. Inch by inch I creep after infinitesimal tesserae of gold, burning at the bottom of the sea.


The author would like to thank Craig Callender, Evan Kuehn, and Herman Paul.


Lucian Staiano-Daniels received a BA from St. John’s College (Annapolis/Santa Fe), an MA from NYU, and a PhD from UCLA in 2018. He was most recently a Dan David Postdoctoral Fellow at Tel Aviv University. He is finishing a book on the daily lives and social interactions of ordinary soldiers in seventeenth-century central Europe, which focuses on a German regiment stationed near Spanish Milan. He has written on social history, the history of violence, and intellectual history. In Foreign Policy, he also writes on current events and matters of interest.

Featured Image: Deep sea sample. Courtesy of the Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

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